BRATTLEBORO -- Last April, Windham County's senators went head-to-head over a campaign-finance bill.
Sen. Peter Galbraith called the bill, which had just passed the Senate, a "sham." Sen. Jeanette White, who had helped shaped the bill, termed it "reasonable."
When a compromise version finally was sent to Gov. Peter Shumlin on Thursday, White and Galbraith clashed again -- this time on different details but on the same general principles.
"It lacks transparency, raises the limit on the amounts that individuals and corporations can give to political parties from $2,000 to $20,000 and makes it easy for corporations and individuals to evade those limits," Galbraith, D-Townshend, declared.
White, D-Putney, argued that the bill increases transparency in political giving. And she argued that the bill cannot be considered campaign-finance "reform" because Vermont's finance law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court eight years ago.
"This is a (new) campaign-finance law," White said. "We had nothing to reform. We had no law."
Last year, Galbraith was the lone senator voting against a campaign-finance bill on the grounds that it did not prohibit political contributions from corporations and unions.
Federal law bans such donations.
When the 2013 legislative session ended, there were differences between the Senate and House versions of the campaign-finance proposal. A conference committee of legislators set about reconciling those differences.
The result is a version that now has gained both House and Senate approval, and Shumlin is expected to sign the bill.
The Senate vote was 20-8, with Galbraith among those in opposition.
He and others pointed out that that the conference committee's compromise actually raised some spending limits higher than either the House or the Senate had proposed.
"This bill more than triples the amount of money an individual can contribute to a political party, from $3,000 to $10,000," Galbraith said. "And it redefines a political party so that a state party and its national affiliate are considered two separate parties."
The result, he argues, is the potential for a big expansion in political donations from a single person or entity.
"An individual or corporation can contribute $10,000 to a state party and $10,000 to its national affiliate, and then the state and national party can each make unlimited contributions to a Vermont candidate," Galbraith said.
"And there is nothing in this bill to prohibit or restrict a donor who wants to circumvent the limitations on contributions to individual candidates from using the state and national parties as a pass-through for contributions totaling $20,000," he added. "Such coordination is completely legal and there is no reason to think parties won't do it."
The potential for political giving by individuals further multiplies, Galbraith warned, since "very wealthy people almost always hold part of their wealth through corporations and LLCs that they control." And state law considers each corporation as a separate source for campaign contributions.
White, who chairs the Senate Government Operations Committee, acknowledged such concerns but listed ways the bill enhances accountability in political spending.
-- It will "require an accountable, transparent, searchable database" of contributions to candidates at the Secretary of State's office.
-- For political-action committees (PACs), candidates and parties, the bill "increases the times for reporting closer to the election," White said.
-- Anyone who has given more than 25 percent of a PAC's total contributions (as long as this exceeds $2,000) will have their name listed in any "electioneering communication."
"It shows who's paying for these communications," White said.
-- For so-called Super PACs, defined as expenditure-only political-action committees, there is an additional reporting requirement closer to the election.
"We can't (legally) put limits on them, but let's at least make them more transparent," White said.
Critics also have noted that the compromise bill does not include a requirement that political donors list their employers and occupations, as is required under federal campaign law.
"Increasing the number of reports does not increase transparency if we don't know who the contributors are," Galbraith said. "I have asked both the (attorney general) and legislative counsel to review transparency under this bill and existing law."
But White pointed out that, once the bill becomes law, the Legislature will be able to alter it to address any problems that arise. For instance, she has not seen evidence that there is a large amount of money flowing from national political parties to Vermont candidates.
"But if we start seeing that, and it's a problem, we can change it," she said. "Now we have a baseline."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.